MTTattoos: Ancient traditions live on through self-expression
Article by Peter Bui | Photos by David Guo Photography

What used to be taboo, tattoos have become more acceptable in today’s society and what used to be relegated to sailors and bikers is becoming more common amongst your bartenders and chefs. Nowadays it seems like everywhere you look you can find someone with a tattoo whether it be a little rose on your co-worker’s ankle or the full sleeve on your local barista. Out of all those people, you’re likely to see at least one Asian piece.

Tattoo history and culture is so immense due to all of the different styles and techniques. Even just focusing on Asian style tattoos alone, one article will not do it justice but Asian Avenue is going to shed some light on this intriguing form of self-expression. We have composed the thoughts and perspectives of some local tattoo enthusiasts and the artists who work on them, but first to understand this beautiful form of body modification we must tell some of its history.

A History Lesson
In Japan the first evidence of tattoos dates back to 5,000 BC and older with figurines recovered from a tomb and the earliest written evidence of Japanese tattoos was recorded by a Chinese historian around 297 AD. Historically in Japan, tattoos were given to mark criminals and over time became associated with organized crime. During the 18th century pictorial tattooing was very popular amongst the blue-collar working class in Edo, now known as Tokyo. Many of these tattoos were influenced by the Chinese novel, Shuihan Zhuan, which contained illustrations that depicted heroes decorated with dragons, tigers, flowers, and religious images.

In China, tattoos were also given to mark criminals but amongst the different ethnic groups they were used for different purposes. Ci Wen or “puncture your body” is used amongst the Dai people to show virility and strength by depicting ferocious beasts like tigers or dragons. The Li use it to signify marriage and for medicinal purposes by tattooing rings around the wrist. Multiple tribes similarly use tattoos to show a woman’s maturity.

Tattoos are used in countries like Thailand for religious and spiritual purposes. For these special tattoos, monks chant prayers while they administer the tattoos as a way to ties prayer to the design. One form of this ceremony is called “Sak Yant” which binds protective prayers to the tattoo. There are also tattoos for luck, wealth, and blessings which can be attracted by a tattoo of Buddha.

There are not many cultures that embrace and engrain tattoos into their identity like the many Polynesian cultures. In fact the word tattoo is “Tatau” in Samoan and “Tatu” in Tahitian. It was first mentioned by James Cook through his exploration of the Polynesian Islands, circa 1771.

In Polynesian cultures, tattoos were used for spiritual power, protection, and strength. The tattoo ceremonies were conducted by highly skilled shamans who were educated on the meanings and methods of the designs. These body modifications were also used to show one’s character, position and levels of rank. In the Maori culture tattoos were used to signify social status and all of the high-ranking Maori were tattooed.

In Samoan society, tattoos also showed rank and title as well as one’s dedication to cultural tradition. To Samoans it exemplified strength because the method in which the tattoo was applied was extremely painful and the risk of infection and death was very apparent, but to shy away would show cowardice.

Today, a lot of these old traditions are still carried on and practiced by many people. Although some of the purposes for tattoos have changed over the years it is has become a way for people to honor their ancestors and culture.

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Self-Expression
The reasons and meanings of a tattoo, just like interpreting a painting, is in the eye of the beholder and even two similar tattoos can have different meanings. Michelle Vo, 27, explains she has a “cherry blossom branch to represent strength” and is a tattoo she shares with her mother and brother. Marylyn Tran, 19, also has a tattoo of cherry blossoms to memorialize her mother who passed away to stomach cancer when she was 9. Tran says “cherry blossoms are elegant, beautiful, but yet short-lived after they have bloomed.”

“It reminds me of my mother and her beautiful life that ended too soon.” These similar depictions have deeper meanings and emotions than what is seen on the surface.

Many use body art to recognize their cultures like Jon Bui, 28, who explains the story behind his half sleeve dragon. “Folklore explains that Vietnamese are descendants of the Dragon (Lac Long Quan).”

There are symbols or animals that are uniquely linked to a culture like the panda bear which Charlie Huynh, 19, uses as “a symbol of [his] deep Chinese roots.”

Old folklore can be found in Andrew Bui’s crane and tortoise piece. “The two animals together represent longevity and prosperity,” tells Bui, 19. “I wanted something unique while representing my heritage.”

Just like depictions of animals or symbols, words or writings can be a powerful representation of someone’s respect for their culture. Filipino-American Adam Jeffress, 30, has “Buhay Ko” tattooed on his back which “roughly translates to ‘My Life’ in Tagalog,” explains Jeffress.

“Sin. Salvation. Strength.” is tattooed in Alibata (ancient Filipino script) on Kat Asuncion’s back. “I believe this is a cyclical pattern throughout life – human nature will cause people to sin, there is always a chance for salvation, but it takes great strength.”

According to Asuncion, 27, tattoos have become more popular because the cultural perception of tattoos has come away from being associated with deviant culture (i.e. prison, gangs, etc.). “Tattoos have grown into a more artistic/individualistic form of expression.”

For Jessica Thai, 25, most of her tattoos are of Buddhist scriptures and quotes. Her Chinese parents helped pick them out for her. She says, “I got my first tattoo when I was 18. I remember my dad going to the tattoo shop with me!”

The appreciation of tradition and culture doesn’t have to be of one’s own, but can be one that draws your interest and speaks to you personally. You can find very traditional Japanese tattoos on a non-Japanese person or a Samoan tattoo on a person with no Polynesian heritage. The deep appreciation for the meaning behind a tattoo as well as the process can attract people.

There are traditionalists who still use tebori which is an old Japanese method of applying a tattoo by hand. The method is very painstaking and painful for the one getting the tattoo but this centuries-old technique shows the appreciation for tradition. The same can be said of Samoan tattoo artists or tafugas that still use combs and hammers to tap tattoos into the wearer. These traditional methods are uncommon practice because of the amount of skill and time needed to master them which shows the dedication these people have.

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Through The Eyes of an Artist
Art has many different mediums and can be expressed in a multitude of ways whether it’s paint to canvas, hands to clay or ink to skin. The art of tattooing has drawn many creative minds to express their creativity through this art form just like the artists who lent us their perspective for this article. First, here’s a brief background on three Denver tattoo artists.

Matt Sager has been tattooing since 2008 and is currently working at Th’ink Tank Tattoo in Denver. “I’ve always enjoyed art,” Sager says. “I absolutely enjoy tattooing Asian artwork, more specifically Japanese and Tibetan folklore. It’s one of the oldest forms of tattoo artwork and all the tattoo subject matter has stories behind them.”

Chris Tran of Harbour Lights Social Club in South Denver has been tattooing for four years and says, “I’ve always had an interest in the arts.” When asked what he likes about tattooing Asian pieces, Tran said, “I love Asian tattoos and the beauty in them. These tattoos are timeless and the amount of attention to detail you have to put in them really draws me toward this style of tattooing.”

Our third artist Jon Lew graduated from the Art Institute of Colorado and says, “I knew that I wasn’t going into the field that I had graduated in so I found tattooing as my career path.”

Lew has been tattooing for eight years and is currently the owner of Fortune Cookie Tattoos in Denver. Lately, Lew has been drawn to the Polynesian style of artwork and says, “I think it’s a good style because it’s been around so long.”

Just like the meanings behind tattoos, the styles and techniques will vary from artist to artist. Some are more traditional like Sager who says, “I’m very heavily influenced by traditional artwork. I steer towards the traditional style with a modern twist.”

Like Sager, Tran also has an influence of both modern and traditional techniques. “I tend to have a mixture of both styles in my tattooing but always keeping mind of the traditional way.”

Tran says, “Being able to throw in my own style definitely helps me keep building as an artist.” Lew also has a unique look on tattooing and says he notices “[artists] have gone back to the traditional tattooing.” Because of the history of Asian artwork, Sager explains “there is a certain way to do this style, and by modernizing it too much, you actually take away from the style.”

Not only are skills and techniques important but an understanding of tradition is needed in order to execute Asian art correctly and this knowledge takes a lot of time and dedication to learn. “The difficulty in Asian tattoos compared to other styles is the history behind them and making sure you keep traditional aspects of the tattoo with your overall design,” explains Tran.

“[Asian tattoos] are difficult to do right,” Sager agrees. “Too many people mess up this style, by not following the rules, and not staying true to the actual stories and folklore.”

Each of these artists have spent years learning and studying this art form. They continue to grow as artists with gained experience and knowledge which most would agree has been made easier with technology. Tran believes tattoos have gotten better over recent time because social media has allowed him “to see what other artists are doing around the world.” Sager adds “as time progresses, [tattoos] progress as well. When in the past you couldn’t see other people’s work without visiting them [or] seeing it in a magazine.”

What You Need to Know Before Getting a Tattoo
If you haven’t picked up the theme of the article yet, the first thing is you need to do your research and have a solid understanding on what kind of tattoo you want. There is so much information available on the internet and countless resources.

“My advice for anyone getting a tattoo is to do your research and don’t rush into anything you are unsure of,” advises Tran. Once you figure out what you want, the next step is to find the right artist.

Not just any tattoo artist is going to be the right one for your tattoo. Jon Bui spent time researching his artist, who specialized in traditional Japanese tattoos. “I came across his portfolio online and it was like love at first sight,” says Bui, who actually flew out to Chicago to meet his artist for his sessions.

Adding to the point, Sager advises, “Find an artist whose work you like and talk with them about your idea.”

There is a special relationship that people have with their tattoo artist. Just ask Vo who is best friends with her artist and says “he is amazing with Asian inspired tattoos.”

Be prepared because getting a tattoo can be painful especially around the sensitive areas. “If you want a well done and detailed tattoo; be ready for a lot of pain!” warns Bui. In Marylyn Tran’s experience, “the outlining of the blossom didn’t hurt as bad as I thought it would [but] the shading was painful.”

Here’s some last bit of advice from the artists. “Don’t shop for price. Cheap tattoos aren’t good and good tattoos aren’t cheap, it’s a permanent change to your body,” says Sager. “Get more tattoos!” exclaims Tran. “And also, don’t forget to breath.”

Last Thoughts
For most, tattoos aren’t family traditions or even cultural traditions; you won’t go into someone’s home and find full sleeves on their grandmother. This form of body modification has become a way for new generations to show respect and appreciation for their heritage.

It’s also a way to adapt ideals and show admiration for another culture through artwork. Tattoos are appreciated as an art form and like art, many people collect these pieces as they do paintings.

The growing social acceptance of tattoos can be attributed to the education and understanding of this form of artwork.